- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

CHICAGO — After the Washington Wizards’ dominant performance in the fourth quarter of a 108-91 victory at Boston nine days ago, Antawn Jamison remarked that this was “the best chemistry we’ve had all year.”

Little did Jamison and his teammates realize that what appeared to be a minor sprain of Caron Butler’s right thumb in that same quarter would be so detrimental to their playoff aspirations. But four straight losses later, a slim possibility remains that they could tumble from their current fifth position all the way out of the playoffs over the final four games of the season, and it is clear how much the Wizards’ third-leading scorer means to them.

“We absolutely miss him,” Gilbert Arenas said Wednesday. “He is crucial to what we do. When you get used to having someone like that and then all of a sudden you don’t have him, it means you have to adjust. We’re having trouble adjusting.”

Butler is averaging career highs in points (17.3), rebounds (6.1) and field goal percentage (45.3). And despite being just 6-foot-7, Butler is probably the team’s best post-up option.

But according to Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, Butler won’t be back until the “end of the weekend” at the earliest. Although he’s listed as day-to-day, he’s almost certainly going to miss tonight’s game at Chicago.

“I still feel some discomfort. It is painful and bothersome,” Butler said yesterday. “It has been real difficult. I am disappointed that I can’t be out there with my teammates. We are coming down the stretch run and there is only so much that I can do from the bench. I am just trying to stay positive and focused right now.”

The Wizards (39-39) are in line for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference but are only two games ahead of the Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers (both 37-41), who are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot with the Bulls holding the tiebreaker.

The five teams separated by two games are so close that Elias Sports Bureau, which tracks all types of sports data for media outlets, hasn’t even bothered to figure out what combination of Wizards’ wins and opponents’ losses would guarantee them a postseason berth for the second straight season.

Indiana (38-40) and Milwaukee (38-40) are currently sixth and seventh, respectively.

The trouble for Washington is that of the five teams contending for four spots, the Wizards’ schedule is probably the hardest. The final stretch starts tonight against a Chicago team that has won eight of its last 10 games.

Washington may catch a break Sunday when it plays at home against Cleveland, which is locked into the fourth seed. MVP candidate LeBron James sprained his left ankle Wednesday in the third quarter of a 96-73 loss to Detroit.

After that they’ll welcome Milwaukee to Verizon Center on Tuesday for an important game for both teams, and then they’ll finish the season Wednesday at Detroit, which has been the best team in the league from start to finish.

“We’ve been down this road before with our backs against the wall, and we’ve fought through it,” Arenas said. “We’re in a predicament where we’ve actually got to fight now. We can’t look at it like we’re three games ahead. Now we’ve actually got to play basketball.”

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